Mushroom hunters are no longer only in search of morel mushrooms. As the medicinal benefits of chaga has reached wide audiences, people are trying to find out how to harvest chaga for their own use at home. Chaga has proven to be a superfood that fights cancer, boosts the immune system, and has major health benefits for the liver and gastrointestinal system. The list of benefits from chaga goes even further and people who know how to harvest chaga can get the full benefits of this superfood.
The first step to being able to harvest chaga is to know how to identify chaga.
Chaga is a tree growing fungus. Chaga is often mistaken for a mushroom species but it is a sclerotia. A sclerotia is a hard mycelium mass that serves as storage for living fungi. Chaga is not easily farmed and can only be found in the wild or through laboratory cultivation.
The chaga fungus grows specifically on Birch trees and is most often found in the Northern hemisphere. You are most likely to find chaga in cold environments such as Russian taiga, Northern Europe, Canada, and Alaska.
Chaga resembles burnt charcoal on the outside. Chaga can come in any shape or size but most often will be in the shape of a dome, cone, or horn. The edges of the mass will look crusty like charcoal. Chaga growths are also very hard. Inside of the chaga will be yellowish brown and softer.
Best Season for Chaga Harvesting
Harvesting chaga is best during the fall months when there have been at least 20 consecutive nights of temperatures below 20 degrees (-6C). The birch trees go dormant and the chaga will hold the peak amount of nutrients.
When you are harvesting chaga, only the sterile conk needs to come off the tree. Chaga is finite and needs to be harvested carefully and in a sustainable manner. When done correctly you can harvest chaga from the same site throughout the fall and winter months. Once sap starts to run, you should no longer collect the chaga from that site because the mushrooms will be as much as 80% water with almost no medicinal benefits.
Tips for Harvesting Chaga
Chaga is a parasite that needs a living host to thrive. Mushroom hunters should not collect chaga from trees that are dead. When the birch tree dies the chaga will die along with it. Only collect chaga from living birch trees.
Determining if a tree is living is easy in the summer time when the presence of leaves indicates life. In the winter months when the trees are dormant the determination is more difficult. Chaga is collected in the late fall and winter months so being able to determine whether a dormant tree is living is essential.
Birch trees that are living will produce winter buds that look like layered cones on bright red or brown nubs. Yellow and cherry birch trees also give off an odor that smells slightly minty if you bruise the bark. Dead birch trees do not have this odor.
Chaga will eventually kill its host tree but the process can take decades when sustainable harvesting of chaga happens. Make sure to leave between 15 and 20% of the chaga mushroom behind so that the chaga remains healthy and continues to regrow in one spot rather than rapidly spreading. If you find a birch tree with a chaga infection in multiple places, leave one spot alone and intact to benefit the fungus infection in the tree.
Harvesting pieces that are larger than a grapefruit is preferred. These chunks will weigh between 7 and 10 pounds on average. You should also only harvest chaga from trees in area that are not infected with human pollution. The best chaga is free of environmental and human toxins. The deeper into the forest you go, the better your chaga will be.
Chaga Harvesting Removal Process
The most important thing to keep in mind about chaga removal is that you want to leave about 1/5 of the chaga intact. This will ensure that the chaga cycle will continue. When you are determining whether a piece of chaga is big enough to harvest, wrap your hand over the chaga. If any part of your fingers touches the tree, the chaga needs more time to grow. The site should be left for a few more years.
If the chaga is large enough, use a sharp, outdoor knife or axe that is high quality to cut the chaga from the tree a few inches above the base of the chaga so that 1/5 of the chaga remains. After cutting the chaga you must store it properly to avoid molding.
Storing Chaga After Harvesting
Chaga must be dried after harvesting to avoid molding. Breaking the chaga into smaller chunks is the best way to dry chaga. Before breaking down the chunks, clean any environmental debris from them.
The chaga can be broken down into small pieces around 1 cm in size. Place the chunks on a sheet pan and position next to a heat source. It is very important that you do not dry chaga inside of the oven. Placing the chaga in a sunny window or near a wood stove for a few days works well.
Do not try to cut or peel off the outer black, hard, crusty layer of the chaga. This protective outer layer is the most medicinally beneficial part of the fungus and should be kept intact. However, you should make sure to break down the chaga before it begins to dry as the outer later will be very difficult to grind into tea or powder once drying occurs.
When the chaga is dry they can be ground or stored as-is within an airtight container. The container should be kept in a cool dark place such as a pantry.
Where to Find Harvested Chaga
If you cannot harvest chaga yourself, there are whole herb and natural health suppliers that distribute dried chaga and supplements. Before you purchase chaga from a retailer, you should ask questions to ensure you are getting chaga with the optimal benefits.
Chaga suppliers should be able to answer questions as where the chaga was harvested, what the company's best practices are for harvesting chaga, and whether the trees are cut down. Often, suppliers will have entire sections of birch forest infected with chaga fungus cut down and transported elsewhere for harvesting. This practice is not sustainable and leads to the trees being killed decades prematurely in many cases.
Other questions you should ask a supplier could be about their drying process or which method they use to extract the chaga or make the tincture. Be weary of websites that have very little information about chaga and the process of extraction. Companies that supply chaga should be confident in their techniques and be able to answer all your questions with expertise.